Salt Lake’s Urban Bike Explosion
Since ditching her car in 2009, Kristin Beck takes two wheels to work (a flat, easy five-mile roundtrip), to the market, and pretty much everywhere else, using public transit only when the weather doesn’t cooperate. For someone who already enjoyed riding on a regular basis, joining the growing ranks of Salt Lake City bike commuters was a natural transition. Many of her co-workers, friends, and neighbors have also embraced this trend.
“There’s a lot more people talking about it now. I think that there’s a generation that doesn’t necessarily want to be encumbered by a vehicle,” she says. “There’s a more environmentally conscientious set of people whose population is growing hand over fist, and the next step is finding alternative modes of transportation.”
A recent survey conducted by the Utah Department of Transportation found that between 8-10% of all Utahns commute by bike with some frequency during good weather, with the highest concentration in the Salt Lake area.
The city’s relatively flat terrain, quiet neighborhoods, and grid of interconnected streets make urban biking a viable method of transportation for many, both locals and visitors.
The city’s largest outdoor events, including outdoor concerts, festivals, and the Downtown Farmer’s Market, offer free valet parking through the Bicycle Collective. It’s a secure and more convenient alternative to trying to find space on a nearby bike rack. Volunteers parked over 10,600 bikes at 87 events last year alone.
Riders are eligible for Bicycle Benefits discounts at more than 60 participating businesses by picking up a helmet sticker for just $5.
UTA buses and Trax trains all accommodate bikes to help cyclists get around the city, and with the resident-exclusive Hive Pass, can be a reasonably priced alternative if the weather doesn’t cooperate. “When it comes to urban biking, Salt Lake has really stepped up its game. You have everything from the six-speeds to the GREENbikes to picking up a mountain bike and getting a little dirty,” says Shawn Stinson, communications director at Visit Salt Lake, “It really has come a long way.”
Mayor Ralph Becker was inspired to develop a bike sharing program for Salt Lake after observing the success of similar services in other major cities. The GREENbikes made their debut in April 2013 with 10 stations and 55 bikes. By December, over 6,100 people had taken 25,361 trips with the program. Those figures made GREENbike the most successful small bike-share system (less than 50 stations) in the U.S.
The program has expanded by 462% since its inception with additional stations being installed as recently as June. Currently, there are more than 200 bikes and 25 stations serving the commercial, recreation, and employment hubs of downtown Salt Lake.
Unlike a bike rental service, GREENbikes are checked out for 30-minute or hour-long trips at a time. They can be returned to any station. Riders can buy access for a 24-hour or four-day period, or purchase an annual pass for $75, which includes a helmet. This nonprofit is supported largely by private donors and managed by a small full-time staff.
Nick Como, senior director of communication and marketing for the Downtown Alliance, says the ideal GREENbike customers are those who live near the city center, work office jobs, and want a quick, convenient, and affordable commute.
“It’s an easy and great way to get around the city, and reduces traffic,” Nick says. “Getting people on bikes helps clean up the air and gives them a way to exercise.”
The program just unveiled a new incentive for downtown companies to purchase annual passes for their entire staff at a discounted rate of $35 per person.
Ongoing and Upcoming Projects
With input from residents and business owners taken into consideration, the city is in the process of developing a low-stress bikeway network to improve safety and accessibility for riders in the downtown area for years to come.
In the fall of 2014, 300 South underwent significant renovations to become more cyclist friendly. Cement barriers now separate vehicles from a protected bike lane between 600 East and 300 West and traffic lanes and speeds were reduced. Early data points to an approximate 30% increase in ridership along this route.
More protected lanes are being installed along 200 West from North Temple to 900 South as part of an improvement project that will continue through the beginning of October.
The proposed 600 East Bicycle Boulevard, extending from South Temple to 2700 South, will be the first of its kind in Utah. The street will be converted into a low-speed, low-volume route with added safety elements like signals for cyclists and pedestrians, and will connect with several key bike corridors.
“Salt Lake City is planning to continue expansion of the bikeway network and bike share program, while also partnering on programs such as education, events, and public awareness campaigns,” says transportation planner Colin Quinn-Hurst. “There will also be a noticeable increase in the level of investment in individual facilities, such as walking and biking paths, to create appealing, continuous thoroughfares that connect different parts of the city.”
Between 2008 and 2014, the city increased bike lanes and routes by 87%. By the end of 2015, it’s anticipated that Salt Lake will have 246 total miles of bikeways.
Eventually, Parley’s Trail will connect the Bonneville Shoreline Trail at the mouth of Parley’s Canyon to the Jordan River Parkway Trail. Several segments are already open and construction will progress from east to west as funding is obtained.
The McClelland Trail—a multi-use route along the Jordan and Salt Lake City Canal designed to connect streets between 800 South and Elgin Avenue—is due to start construction sometime in 2016.
“Thinking a little further ahead, and if the experiences of other cities are any indication, all this can precipitate a growth in the local bike industry—attracting bike-centric manufacturing companies, while also bringing new companies and workers of all kinds,” says Colin. “Mostly, though, we’ll all just know a few more people who, in addition to driving and taking the bus, might also ride a bike to get around.”
Urban Mountain Biking
SLC locals also enjoy first-rate mountain biking right in their own backyard. One of the most popular rides near the city is the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which traverses the Wasatch foothills just above the city, roughly following the bank of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville. This gradually rolling route is usually among the first low-altitude trails to melt out each spring.
The Salt Lake portion of the trail covers 17 miles on dirt, plus another 5.7 miles of connecting multi-use paved trails. There are several access points from downtown. Most riders pedal to Memory Grove and up City Creek Canyon to join the trail. Hop on at Hogle Zoo for a less steep yet longer route; Dry Creek, near Shriners Hospital, offers the quickest option.
A bit further from the city center, The Wasatch Crest Trail is a breathtaking summer ride that has it all: high elevation, a grueling climb, impressive vistas, a long descent, and plenty of options for those seeking a challenge. Starting from Guardsman’s Pass, the trail gently rolls through an aspen forest, giving riders a chance to warm up before taking on Puke Hill.
Drop down and explore Park City’s hundreds of miles of singletrack via Pinecone Ridge, or continue along the top. The most popular descent passes through Millcreek Canyon (take a detour onto The Pipeline for extra mileage). Diehards can climb from Big Water Trail for a 20-mile out-and-back, or extend it to a loop using Midmountain Trail.
Take the narrow summer road all the way up Millcreek Canyon to access Big Water Trail, another classic Wasatch ride. Open to bikes only on even-numbered days, the six-mile out-and-back climbs 900 feet. Though devoid of big views à la Wasatch Crest, the aspen and fir forest littered with wildflowers is by no means less scenic. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at the tranquil Dog Lake before turning around for a swift descent. And as the name might imply, this route is Fido-friendly.
Check out bikeslc.com for more trails, resources, and tips for getting around the city on two wheels.